Essential Fatty Acids: What Are They?

When thinking about dieting, most people assume “fat” is always a bad word. However, this is not always the case. In fact, some fats, especially essential fatty acids, are very important to maintain overall health.

What Are Essential Fatty Acids Good for?

Essential fatty acids are the fats you often hear about when dietitians and nutritionists talk about “good” fats. The main essential fatty acids are Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-9 is also an important fatty acid, but it can be produced by the body. The body cannot synthesize Omega-3 and 9, however, and they are essential building blocks for manufacturing and repairing body cells. It is very important to maintain proper health of cell membranes, as the membranes work to absorb essential nutrients and expel waste products.

In addition, essential fatty acids are major components of prostaglandins, important regulatory substances similar to hormones. Prostaglandins perform a wide variety of functions within the human body, including regulating hormone production, and controlling cell growth. They are also important to ensure proper growth and development in children.

A deficiency in these important fats can lead to a number of serious conditions, including:

  • Cancer
  • Insulin resistance
  • Lupus
  • Obesity
  • Depression

Essential fatty acids, then, are just that–essential. Without an adequate amount of these nutrients in the diet, the body simply cannot function properly.

Where to Get Essential Fatty Acids

Since the body cannot synthesize essential fatty acids, they must be supplied in the diet. Maintaining a reasonable intake of the proper fats, with an appropriate balance between Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, helps maintain overall health and can even help fight diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Foods where essential fatty acids can be found include:

  • Flax seeds and flaxseed oil
  • Walnuts
  • Canola oil
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Salmon
  • Mackerel
  • Sardines
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Chicken

Even if these are not usual elements of your diet, it isn’t difficult to add sufficient essential fatty acids to your regular intake, since the body only requires a small amount. As little as a tablespoon of flaxseed oil, for example, supplies an adequate daily supply of both Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. Some studies indicate that eating nuts throughout the day is a better way to supplement the diet than through oils, but these can also be consumed in moderation and still provide plenty of essential fatty acids for optimum health.

Ways to Add Fatty Acids to the Diet

There are many easy and painless ways to increase your daily intake of essential fatty acids. Cook your chicken dinner in canola oil, for example, or add a few walnuts to an afternoon salad. Flax seeds can be sprinkled over cereal or vegetables, or flaxseed oil can be used as a substitute for butter on a piece of crusty whole-wheat bread.

The growing awareness of the body’s need for essential fatty acids has also led manufacturers to add these vital oils to various brands of margarine and cooking oils. Read labels closely to see if a “heart healthy” margarine might give you exactly what you need to up your fatty acid intake. These minor changes to your diet can help you maintain your health, as well as prevent the occurrence of serious health problems down the road.


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